How Laredo, Tex. Is Taking Advantage Of Its Geographical Location To Create Job Growth

Location, location, location: the key ingredient for any business to succeed. While in the private sector, business owners have the luxury of choosing where to open up shop, municipal government leaders must work hard to attract business to their cities.

Laredo, Tex. was founded on the north bank of the Rio Grande on May 15, 1755, when Spanish Captain Tomás Sanchez was granted permission to settle 15 leagues of land near an Indian ford on the river. That settlement grew into a thriving community on both sides of the Rio Grande, establishing itself then, as it is now, 257 years later, as a prosperous trade outpost.

Trade is Laredo's lead industry. Today Laredo is the nation's largest inland port in the nation, handling over 12,000 trucks every day. It is the sixth largest commercial port in the United States, behind only the major water ports. Laredo crosses more trucks on a daily basis than all the other land ports on the southern border combined. The city is also the number-one railroad interchange point on the U.S./Mexico border, with 1,200 rail cars crossing every day, as well as being the eighth largest air cargo hub in the Americas. In fact, 60 percent of all U.S. trade with Mexico crosses through the Port of Laredo. All told, the City of Laredo generates more than $173 billion annually in international trade.

Laredo, Tex. sits on the U.S./Mexico border where IH-35 and two major railroads cross into Mexico. However, the city does not view itself as sitting on the border with Mexico, but as a hub of activity for South Texas and Northern Mexico. While geography has certainly played into the growth and development of the community, achieving this milestone did not happen just because of where the city is located. City of Laredo leaders also did not just sit around and wait for business to come to Laredo. The city's location and development, as a close neighbor to Mexico, aside from creating tourism as Laredo's second-leading industry, has created a unique and dynamic bilingual and bicultural community, for both business and personal sectors of the residents' lives. Taking advantage of this understanding, appreciation, and mastery of the Spanish language and Mexican culture, business mores, and governmental processes, City of Laredo leaders have gone throughout Central and South America and applied those same principals to facilitate trade from these countries through Mexico, faster, cheaper, and just as securely as other U.S. ports. At a recent trade symposium hosted by the City of Laredo with all Central American countries, numerous memoranda of understanding were executed to send their country's goods and products through the Port of Laredo, and the reasons cited included Laredo's facilities, location, security, business opportunities, and bilingual culture of cooperation.

When Captain Sanchez was settling in the area, he had no idea of the goldmine that the area would also offer his descendants centuries later. South Texas, and specifically the brush country terrain where Laredo sits, is the area of the discovery of a major oil and natural gas formation just north of Laredo -- the Eagle Ford Shale. Oil and gas companies -- and their employees -- are flocking to Laredo to set up shop, homes, and other related businesses, and Laredo city leaders have been quick to take advantage of this boom.

The City of Laredo recently organized a job fair, in partnership with local, state, and federal elected officials and partners in higher education. Hoping to put more Laredo residents in jobs, the Eagle Ford Shale Job and Vendor Fair, held this past January, saw over 6,000 attendees enter the Laredo Energy Arena that day, and to date, reports indicate that over 600 people have been employed as a result of it.

Our ability to respond to Eagle Ford Shale has resulted in positive job growth in various industries. What is more impressive is a 4.7-percent increase in the number of people employed.

A significant impact has been seen in the service and support industries that have employed Laredoans; this is evidenced in the decline of our unemployment rate, which is clearly a lower rate than the state's unemployment. The Laredo MSA has had the lowest unemployment rate on the Texas-Mexico Border, at 6.6 percent, and the Laredo MSA has the second highest annual job-growth rate in the State of Texas, at 5.2 percent. The fastest is the Odessa MSA, which is geographically closer to the Eagle Ford Shale formation.

The job fair was great, but it was the result of a vision, and it was not the start. The city understands that this Eagle Ford Shale boom represents thousands of good jobs, but the challenge for Laredo is how to ensure that the community captures these new jobs. The answer is clear: education.

Based on my own life experiences and the challenges of today's marketplace, I believe that we as mayors must always be prepared to provide opportunities for our citizens to train to compete. Every mayor today must be supportive of job training, or retraining.

Specifically, what is the community doing to train its people to take advantage of this wonderful discovery? How is Laredo training its people to compete -- a community that has not traditionally been an oil and gas community, but one that made its living from trade, tourism, and agriculture?

For years, Laredo has been doing this very thing with the community college, which focuses on all the cutting-edge trends in the area.

For instance, as a transportation hub, the community college offers both transportation and automotive technology degrees/certificates. Because one of the trending industries in Laredo is tourism, the community college boasts a culinary arts program, as well.

Today, Laredo's community college offers two specialization certificates specifically for the oil and gas industry. Recently, one of the industry leaders, a Laredo native, made a $1-million donation to the community college in support of the program because it provides the types of hands-on experiences that make a difference to his company. There currently are no similar programs being offered within a 150-mile radius of Laredo. This type of program will benefit the local community by training individuals for the oil and gas sector.

According to Woods & Poole Economics Inc., Laredo will lead the nation in percentage of job gains over the next decade. In this analysis, Laredo is projected to add jobs at a rate of 2.5 percent a year, bringing the workforce total to over 145,000 by 2022. Much of this job growth is attributable to Eagle Ford Shale activity, but it is also the other industries embraced in Laredo.

Laredo is located in the heart of a two-nation community. The city views Mexico as a wonderful partner in trade and a great customer for Laredo's tourism business, industries that have sustained Laredo's economy for the past 257 years. Captain Sanchez chose well when selecting this spot to found the City of Laredo.